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Vowing revenge on the world of normal' people, a sideshow
ventriloquist, strong man & dwarf band together as THE
Following Lon Chaney's great film successes at Universal Studios, Irving Thalberg managed to entice the actor to come to MGM. Anxious to repeat the box office bonanzas of Chaney's recent past, Thalberg signed a one-picture deal with Chaney's favorite director, Tod Browning. The resulting film, THE UNHOLY THREE, was such a hit that Thalberg quickly signed Browning for a long-term contract.
Based on a story by Tod Robbins (who would also pen the inspiration for FREAKS), Browning would give the film an appropriately menacing atmosphere, with flashes of comedic wit at just the right intervals. A crime caper rather than a horror film, the chills are saved for right near the end with the rampages of a ferocious ape (actually a chimpanzee, photographed out of proportion) which no one seems surprised to find in a bird store.
While ventriloquism may seem an odd pastime to depict in a silent movie, Chaney made it all seem so sensible. A consummate artist who only now is starting to receive the proper accolades, Chaney did not need to contort limb or face to portray a little old lady. All he needed was a wig & a dress. So well was he received in this role that it was chosen to be remade five years later as Chaney's talking debut.
Muscular Victor McLaglen (a British Army champion athlete) and tiny Harry Earles (one of the few adult actors who could disguise himself as a baby) give very solid support as Chaney's wicked cronies; much of the favorable outcome of the film is due to them.
Pensive Mae Busch scores as the waifish pickpocket allied with Chaney; this very talented actress would get to shine a few years later in a series of appearances with Laurel & Hardy. In his one scene as a stern judge, Edward Connelly lends his saturnine presence to the proceedings.
When I was a kid in the '60s I was an avid reader of Forrest J.
Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and it was there I
first heard about the director Tod Browning. He and his work were
prominently featured in the pages of FM, where the (still missing)
London After Midnight was often lamented as the Holy Grail of lost
films. There were also frequent references to The Unholy Three in both
its silent and talkie incarnations. It took me decades to finally catch
up with the silent version, and my response is kind of schizo;
objectively, I'm aware that in a number of ways it's a ridiculous
movie, and yet it's great fun, and highly entertaining. It's a guilty
pleasure, like Bar-B-Q flavored potato chips: something you know you
shouldn't indulge in, but you do anyway. And I believe the main reason
the movie works so well is the sheer star power of Lon Chaney.
Chaney and Browning worked together many times, but this was their biggest box office success. Despite the general impression to the contrary their collaborations were not horror films. In fact, as far as I can determine not one of their movies featured any supernatural elements; even the vampire of London After Midnight turns out to be a police inspector in disguise. Most of the Browning/Chaney films are crime melodramas with bizarre details stirred into the mix, often involving people from the lowest rungs of show business, such as circuses and carnivals. Chaney's characters in these stories are often afflicted with an intense, unrequited passion for a young woman (most memorably and disturbingly in The Unknown), and his behavior and actions are affected by this obsession, usually to his disadvantage, sometimes fatally so.
By the time The Unholy Three was produced Browning had developed his recurring themes and motifs into a highly effective, time-tested formula. His directorial technique is stylish in an unobtrusive way: he'll use a device such as shadows thrown on a wall forming a silhouette of the three title characters, but he generally avoids flamboyant touches. With a story like this, he doesn't need them. The synopsis has been outlined elsewhere, but briefly it involves a trio of crooks from the sideshow world: Professor Echo the ventriloquist (Chaney) who disguises himself as an old lady, a strong man (Victor MacLaglen), and a midget (Harry Earles) who masquerades as a baby. A pet store serves as a front for their activities. The trio is actually is quintet, as they are accompanied by a thief named Rosie (Mae Busch) and a bespectacled patsy named Hector (Matt Moore) who is somehow oblivious that his employers are, well, not what they seem. Hector takes everything in stride. It's perfectly normal to him that the pet shop where he works offers not only birds and rabbits but also a dangerous gorilla in a big cage, so if Hector takes it for granted, hey, why shouldn't we? The plot turns on a jewel heist gone wrong, in part because of Prof. Echo's jealousy over Rosie. However, in this film the story is secondary to the sinister atmospherics.
While it's Chaney's performance that drives the film the other actors are perfectly cast-- more so than in the talkie remake --and the characters' interactions have a "rightness" that persuades us to overlook numerous credibility issues. As in the best Hitchcock films, we're willing to ignore gaping plot holes in order to savor the highlights. One of the most effective sequences features a police inspector who interrogates the trio in the wake of the jewel heist. He's unaware that the jewels he seeks are inside a toy elephant at his feet, a toy that supposedly belongs to the "baby." The scene is suspenseful and funny, and, for me, the sight of Harry Earles disguised as a baby is almost as creepy as anything in an out-and-out horror film.
The unlikely twists increase to the point of absurdity in the final scenes, yet the story follows the consistent internal logic of a deeply weird dream. It's no surprise this was such a big hit in its day. I was fortunate enough to see a recently restored print of this film at the Museum of Modern Art this summer, back-to-back with the talkie remake. The silent version in particular went over quite well, though admittedly there were chuckles when a title card glibly announces the outcome of Prof. Echo's trial. Afterward in the lobby viewers were enthusiastic about the film, and about Lon Chaney. Seventy-five years after his death audiences are still impressed with his charismatic presence. So here's a tip of the hat to Forry Ackerman, who saw the Browning/Chaney films when they were new and was right about this one all along!
"The Unholy Three" (MGM, 1925), directed by Tod Browning, is the kind of
movie only Lon Chaney could do best, playing a tough guy with a good heart,
donning a disguise or two, and coming out with one of the film's famous
lines, "That's all there is to life, folks, just a little laugh, just a
little tear." In reality, it's a change of pace for Chaney from his previous
efforts, playing a tough but sympathetic character in a crime
The story features three museum freaks, Hercules, the strong man (Victor McLaglen), Tweeledee, the dwarf (Harry Earles), and Professor Echo, the ventriloquist (Lon Chaney), performing in a sideshow while Echo's girl, Rosie O'Grady (Mae Busch) goes through the crowd picking pockets. When Echo comes upon an idea of a get-rich-quick scheme, he, Hercules, Tweeledee and Rosie become partners in crime as THE UNHOLY THREE. They then open a store stocked with parrots that will not talk, but Echo, disguised as Granny O'Grady, the proprietress, arranges to have the parrots "talk" only in his presence. His gal Rosie acts as "Granny's grand-daughter," with Tweeledee is disguised as Rosie's infant son and Hercules as the "infant's" uncle. With the shop as a front, THE UNHOLY THREE rob the homes of their well-to-do customers, especially when they telephone to complain that the parrots they brought does not talk, thus, having Granny and the "baby" paying them a visit and casing the place for a possible late night robbery. Also working in the shop is Hector McDonald (Matt Moore), who becomes interested in Rosie but is unaware of the operation.
Watching Lon Chaney disguised as a sweet little old lady is priceless, almost reminiscent to Tod Browning's latter melodrama of the sound era, "The Devil Doll" (MGM, 1936) in which Lionel Barrymore appeared as an escaped convict dressed as an elderly woman to elude the law, a role Chaney would have done, I'm sure, had he lived. Chaney would play Echo again in his one and only talkie of 1930 bearing the same title. With both films readily available for viewing on Turner Classic Movies, one can see and compare both versions, in spite of some changes in parts in the continuity. Along with Chaney, midget Harry Earles also repeats his Tweeledee performance.
When "The Unholy Three" was presented on public television's 13-week series tribute to MGM, "Movies, Great Movies" in 1973, its host, Richard Schickel mentioned that this 1925 version was Lon Chaney's personal favorite of all his movies and one of MGM's biggest hits of that year. It's a grand performance worthy of the "master of disguises." Although a silent movie, one would wish to hear how the Echo character would throw his voice around to fool his customers. (Watch the 1930 talkie and find out).
Also interesting is seeing a young Victor McLaglen, the future Best Actor winner of 1935's "The Informer," still rugged but a little thinner; Mae Busch (famous for her variety of roles in several Laurel and Hardy comedy shorts and features for Hal Roach in the 1930s), usually playing a tough gal, here playing against type as a co-starring love interest; and Matthew Betz as Inspector Regan. Tod Browning's direction should not go unnoticed, with one interesting scene having Chaney discussing his future plans in forming THE UNHOLY THREE to his supporters, as presented on screen in silhouettes, looking something like a "film noir" crook drama of the 1940s.
The 1925 version, which runs at 86 minutes, currently includes a fine orchestral score that was originally composed and used for the 1973's "Movies, Great Movies" PBS TV presentation, the sound track now heard when shown on Turner Classic Movies. "The Unholy Three" marks another plus to Lon Chaney's filmography of successes at MGM.
A great film...period. Lon Chaney heads a group of three thieves/carnival performers as they masquerade as an old woman, a man, and a baby in a pet shop where they sell birds that talk only by ventriloquism. Once the owners get home they see the birds no longer talk and the thieves are invited into their opulent homes. Tod Browning, the director of Dracula, does a marvelous job with this film. There are scenes that are just fantastic, the best of which for me is the courtroom scene. Browning gets a lot of help, however, by some real good performances. Chaney turns in a complex performance of a ventriloquist in love, yet evil, yet with some slight conscience. The scene in the courtroom where he deliberates helping Hector is acting at its best. Throw in a great job by Mae Busch and little Harry Earles as a cigar-smoking midget disguised as a baby. The silent film is a lost art only in that we no longer view it, talk about it, review it like it should. This film and the performances within should be seen not heard.
The Unholy Three is a magnificent piece of filmmaking. The actors really fit into their roles. The mixture of thriller, comedy and drama is perfect. Tod Browning shows his talents. This film deserves to be shown more. I saw it at the Umea Filmfestival this September with newly written live music that made a great movie even better.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Lon Chaney was one of the greatest actors who ever lived. He expresses
more emotion in this movie with his facial expressions than many of the
actors today can do with their voices. Chaney stars as Professor Echo,a
sleazy carnival ventriloquist, who plans to pull off a crime that would
make him and his two counterparts rich. Echo a master of voices will
pose as an old lady, the sideshow midget named Tweedledee will be the
baby, and Hercules the strongman will be a bystander. Together this
team of unholy individuals open up a pet store which specializes in
selling talking parrots. These birds talk and sing in the store but
when the buyer brings them home they stop.A rich man named Arlington
buys a parrot and calls "Old Lady Mcgrady" to come have a look at it.
Tweedledee notices a red ruby necklace.
"Don't worry Grannie will buy you a nice set of red pearls like that" Echo's girlfriend Rosie is falling in love with Hector the employee at the store. Echo is beginning to lose his concentration and his partners plot against him. Hercules murders Arlington and after Hector proposes to Rosie Echo plans to frame him for the murder.
Yes the plot is a bit silly at times but Chaney and his cast tell it with the utmost sincerity. Chaney's Echo is a sad character,not necessarily evil but selfish. His love for Rosie redeems him and his evil ways at the end of the movie. Chaney is one of the greats. He creates a vivid character. Man of a Thousand Faces is the correct title for him but here he doesn't need his make-up to create a face just his perfect acting skills.
Compared to many films of today, yes, the movie is a bit slow moving. But if you take it into the context of the time, I think this movie is fantastic! Think of it, this was similar to the 'Silence of the Lambs" or "Sixth Sense" of our time! I know this was one of the best movies of 1925, according to the box office counts, so if you take it in that context, WOW! This is a great movie! I personally liked all three of the main "bad guys" (especially Harry Earles as Tweedledee, the midget.), and, if you've seen the 1930 version, I think this "Rosie" is much better than the 1930 Lila Lee "Rosie" (sorry, I blanked). Anyway, a great movie that any good crime movie-lover or silent movie-lover should check out. Check out Turner Classic Movies, as they frequently run it
I had an afternoon free so I decided to watch the two versions of this
Lon Chaney classic back to back, beginning with this one -- Tod
Browning's silent original. It's the story of a crooked carnival
ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) who teams up with the midget (Harry Earles)
and strong man (Victor McLaglen ) for a series of robberies. Chaney
dresses as an old woman and Earles plays a baby to perfect their
scheme. In many ways this was a precursor to the popular Little
Rascals/Our Gang short subject FREE EATS, where a couple of gangsters
act as parents to a couple of little people dressed as infants,
mistakenly referred to as "fidgets".
Whether it's the silent version or sound remake, I thought this was a wildly entertaining story either way, though it's difficult to fairly judge one film or the other when they're viewed together so closely like this. There are pros and cons to both movies for me. The strength of Browning's silent version was that in many ways it felt much more stylish and better crafted, possibly with better production values... but I found I preferred Lila Lee as Rosie O'Grady (from the sound version) to the silent actress here, Mae Busch. The 1925 original perhaps feels a little too long, which is the only thing which kept it from being perfect for me. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if most fans prefer the silent film simply because it was directed by Tod Browning. My advice is to see them both! ***1/2 out of ****
In an effort to make more money than they do as traveling carnival show
attractions, velvet-voiced ventriloquist Lon Chaney (as Echo),
baby-impersonating dwarf Harry Earles (as Tweedledee), and strongman
Victor McLaglen (as Hercules) team up to form a gang of jewel thieves
who call themselves "The Unholy Three". The crooked trio begins
operating out of a bird shop run by Mr. Chaney, posing as sweet "Granny
O'Grady", mother of pickpocket and gang moll Mae Busch (as Rosie). The
front works like a charm, but Ms. Busch attracts the attention of
straight-flying Matt Moore (as Hector), who forms a "love triangle"
Then, an unexpected murder brings further unwelcome advances... from the police.
This was re-made as Chaney's first - and only, unhappily - sound feature, in 1930. Of the many Chaney hits, "The Unholy Three" seemed like the most obvious one to improve with sound; and, Chaney's performance in both is stellar. While the later version has problems, Chaney enhanced his already incredible performance. In this one, frequent collaborator/director Tod Browning is definitely an asset. Also remarkable is Mr. Earle, who hadn't mastered English for the re-make, but seemed fine by "Freaks" (1932); his wicked, cigar-smoking baby is classic.
"The Unholy Three" (1925) was honored as one of its year's best pictures at "Film Daily" (#2), Motion Picture Magazine (#3), and The New York Times (#3) - after winners "The Gold Rush", "The Big Parade", and "The Last Laugh". At Motion Picture, Chaney's individual performance ranked third (after "Best Actor" Emil Jannings and runner-up John Gilbert). The film is perversely appealing - which was then, and is now, a Chaney/Browning hallmark.
******** The Unholy Three (8/16/25) Tod Browning ~ Lon Chaney, Mae Busch, Harry Earles, Matt Moore
This Lon Chaney vehicle, directed by the great Tod Browning, is the story of
three circus performers who begin to thieve jewels. They open a shop that
sells parrots as a front. Chaney, a ventriloquist, dresses up as an old
woman, one of his cohorts a man posing as the old woman's son, and the
third, a midget, as his infant son (one of the major reasons to see this
flick is that the same midget, here named Tweedledeedee, also plays Hans,
the midget who marries the acrobat Cleopatra in Browning's later
masterpiece, Freaks; in this film he actually is seen smoking a giant cigar,
which, in Freaks, his fiancee suggested that he shouldn't smoke). One other
circus performer, a woman, knows about their plans. Chaney loves her, but
she doesn't reciprocate his feelings. The Unholy Three also hire a young
dufus to help with the store. In case they get into trouble, they can always
pin it on that guy. The store also sports a chimpanzee, humorously filmed so
that he seems as big as a gorilla (when it is to walk through a doorway, it
walks through a smaller doorway, for instance, than the actors do).
The story of the film is very interesting. It can also can be quite funny, quite suspenseful, and quite pathetic, especially when Chaney is trying to court the young woman. There's at least one masterful sequence, where a policeman almost discovers the jewels the gang has stolen. They hide it in a toy elephant, which amuses the officer very much. The film also uses ventriloquism quite marvelously - I assume that a lot of the audience of this film in 1925 only knew of ventriloquism by second-hand knowledge - they just knew that ventriloquists could throw their voices, not knowing what it would actually look or sound like. In a silent movie then, you could take full advantage of the audience's ignorance. When Madame O'Grady (Chaney's aka) is trying to sell parrots that don't actually talk as talking parrots, she throws her voice to fool the customers. Browning actually shows that the parrots are supposed to be speaking by drawing speech bubbles on the film in front of the birds! The climax also uses ventriloquism wonderfully: Chaney throws his voice to a man who is on the stand, apparently testifying - he moves his lips, but Chaney supplies the voice. Of course, we know that's ridiculous, but only a few in 1925 would have scoffed. 8/10.
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